Chemicals. Few words have such negative connotations. Headlines about chemical accidents, allergies, toxic waste and food scandals shape the way many of us perceive chemicals.
On the other hand, we have many reasons to be grateful for chemistry. Every day, we are constantly surrounded by it. And we need it. We use chemistry for cooking and washing and to cure diseases, and we put chemicals on our skin.
We also often use them in sport. Chemistry makes it possible to develop high-performance sports products. For example products that make us faster because they are extremely lightweight. Or products that keep us warm or cool and dry while we perform – depending on the sport and weather conditions.
But do we really need that? What are the requirements for high-performance products? Isn't it possible to manufacture those without using any chemicals? And how can we distinguish between good and bad chemicals?
Fundamental and very difficult questions – time to speak to some real experts!
A day spent in the Alps, searching for meaning and purpose
This is Elisa. She is an athlete through and through and very passionate about outdoor sports – whenever she goes into the mountains, she likes to push herself to the limit. This is very useful in her job as an adidas Outdoor Product Manager, which involves a lot of product testing in real and often extreme conditions.
Why is that relevant for this topic? Because clothing designed for outdoor sports, especially in the high-alpine area, must meet some of the most exacting requirements. In order to experience first-hand what these requirements are and to understand why and for what chemicals are needed in the product production process, we went on a mountain hike ourselves – together with Elisa.
It is 07:30 in the morning, and we are very close to the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany. The air is still relatively crisp as we set off.
"Outdoor sport has become a lot more versatile,” Elisa explains. “People are more aware of and using the full range of possibilities offered by the sport. Our consumers no longer simply go hiking or climbing. They want to be able to enjoy all the outdoor sports without any constraints. For example, when they're doing a mountain tour they want to be able to decide on the spur of the moment whether to carry on hiking, to go climbing or rafting, or to do everything combined.”
And what does that mean for the products?
“That means that also the products have to be more versatile."
Consumers no longer want to wear a different outfit for each different activity. They need products that can do everything and meet every requirement.
"And all of the products must fit in a rucksack and be easy to carry – meaning packing dimensions and weight also play a very important role.”
Step by step, we gradually ascend. By now it has become considerably warmer, and it is soon clear that this has nothing to do with normal hiking...
“Athletics play a completely different role, at least for our consumers. In many cases, it isn't nearly enough for them just to go up the mountain: they want to do it as fast as possible. Fast hiking and trail running are very popular at the moment. This sets very demanding requirements for the products – they need to be highly breathable, to wick sweat effectively away from the skin and to get dry quickly. And of course it is extremely important that they are lightweight. Obviously, the less weight I carry, the faster I am.”
After about three hours, things get really exciting. We are confronted with a formidable steep face, which we overcome using a steel cable and a few iron footholds.
“For many mountain sports enthusiasts, conquering via ferratas or going climbing in the mountains is the supreme discipline. And it's great fun. But it also requires highly functional gear, if only for safety reasons. There must be sufficient freedom of movement, as you often have to stretch to reach the next hold. To achieve this, we work a lot with stretch materials. And because you're generally moving very close to sharp-edged stone or rock, the materials must also be very robust so that they don't immediately tear or wear through.”
By now, we're relatively high up and the air has become noticeably colder. What's more, dark clouds have gathered in the sky. Shortly before reaching the summit, we encounter a heavy rainstorm.
“As a rule, the temperature drops by 1°C per 100 metres of altitude. Depending on how high you want to go, it can get quite cold. You have to be prepared for that.”
OK, understood. Outdoor apparel must meet very demanding requirements. In fact, it actually has to be capable of everything. It must be light and must take up as little space as possible when packed. It also needs to be robust and durable, keep you cool or warm you up as necessary. And it needs to offer protection against wind and rain.
Now let's talk about chemicals – why do we need them now?
“We wouldn't be able to achieve this comprehensive range of performance characteristics without using chemicals. Particularly when it comes to the finish, for example, which is the top layer of a jacket, there still isn't any real alternative. We need it to make clothing permanently waterproof. It also plays a major role in terms of durability – good outdoor apparel isn't particularly cheap, and so it goes without saying that you don't want to have to buy new apparel every year."
"Colour is another aspect. Without chemicals, products wouldn't have any colour. This is important for consumers because they also want to wear their jackets, for example, in their daily lives and to look good in them.”
You're also the sustainability officer in your team – are you satisfied with the progress that you're making?
We don't just want to achieve great product performance – that much is given. We also always want to maintain optimal sustainability standards.
"We cooperate with a range of different partners, both external and internal specialists, with a view to improving in this respect. And we've already achieved a lot. For example, we are replacing the use of PFCs in our water- repellent clothes and shoes and plan to be PFC-free in almost all our products in the near future. We use a highly innovative technology, called DryDye, which enables us to dye materials without using water and to reduce our use of chemicals by around 50%.
But, of course, progress isn't always as quick as we or I would like. Sometimes we have good ideas, but then a field test shows that we haven't yet attained the standards that we and our consumers expect. And of course we also need to take the market reality into consideration.
Anyway, we keep pushing on."
A deep dive into chemistry
Let’s now move from the outdoors into the exciting world of science and research.
Here we have Matthias and Steve. Matthias holds a PhD in chemistry and is responsible for advanced chemistry within the adidas Group. Steve has great product expertise and promotes the development of sustainable and innovative materials.